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HELENA - About 70 protesters thundered into the state Capitol on Tuesday, banging on plastic pails and chanting slogans in opposition to the planned Keystone XL pipeline - which is slated to carry crude oil from the Alberta tar sands through Montana - and the megaloads of oil-drilling equipment destined for Alberta. 

The group pushed its way into the outer offices of Gov. Brian Schweitzer and had a brief, loud discussion with him in the governor's reception room.

Most of the protesters left the meeting and continued the demonstration outside Schweitzer's offices in the hallway leading from the rotunda. Five of the protesters, linked together with makeshift devices of PVC pipe wrapped in chicken wire and other materials, refused to leave and were arrested after several warnings from law enforcement officers. Authorities cut the pipes off the protesters and arrested them on charges of trespassing and obstruction of justice. Among the arrested were three Missoula residents.

Many were associated with Northern Rockies Rising Tide, a group that opposes development of the Alberta tar sands, which critics have said will have significant negative environmental effects.

Carrying signs with slogans opposing the pipeline and tar sands, the group entered the Capitol at about 11 a.m. and headed toward the governor's office.

They pushed past a small group of staff and security and occupied the hallway outside the office of Schweitzer and his top staff.

Adrian Guerrero of San Francisco, who said he was with Rising Tide as well as the activist group Earth First!, stood on a chair and earned several rounds of loud cheers denouncing the project as an attack on the environment, on indigenous peoples and on the working class.

"We came here to this country with the idea that America be the land of freedom and prosperity and all that b-s-, but what really happened is that people like my family get shoved to the bottom of the f-ing barrel and that people in those offices, and their corporate lobby, can continue to destroy the environment and throw us off our land, where my father came from, peasant along the side of the f-ing river in the Amazon, so that we could come here and be the slave class, and then ruin the Earth up here, too," he said, to a loud round of cheering and drumming.

Helen Yost of Moscow, Idaho, stood and invited the group to her town, where she said megaloads would be coming. "We're going to stop them, any way we can," she said, to cheers.

After some discussion with Schweitzer's staff and among themselves - several in the group said it operated on a consensus system - the entire group met with Schweitzer at a long table in the reception room, part of the structure's 1912 addition and built in the English Tudor style with oak paneling and a hand-painted ceiling, according to the Montana Historical Society.

Schweitzer tried to answer questions with talk about national fuel consumption and how that has to change, but the crowd punctuated the conversation with shouted comments and questions.

"You're not going to be able to schmooze and politician your way out of this," one woman yelled.

But attempts at finding common ground ended with the demand that Schweitzer end his support for the pipeline and the megaloads. Schweitzer said he wouldn't do that Tuesday, and a protester responded that his group wouldn't leave.

"We're here to establish an uncompromising position," a protester shouted. "That's our job."

The meeting ended when, with no warning, a protester began playing an uptempo Scott Joplin rag on the room's piano, and several people immediately jumped on the table - the centerpiece of the historic room - and began dancing. Schweitzer left.

The governor's staff told the protesters that they could continue their demonstration in the hallway to the rotunda, outside the governor's offices. Most left, and drummed, danced and chanted for a few more hours, filling the halls with noise, scraps of paper ripped from state promotional materials, and the smell of bodies as a group of six, their arms connected, sat outside the reception room to await either capitulation by Schweitzer or arrest.

"It went about as expected," said Peter James Dolan, 26, one of the protesters linked to others, who said he was from Great Falls. "It was clear from the beginning that he wasn't willing to negotiate."

The protesters' plan from the beginning didn't include negotiation, either. A news release, issued before the protesters linked themselves together, was written in the past tense as if the event had already occurred.

Asked if he was surprised to actually gain an audience with Schweitzer, Dolan said the group was prepared for any situation.

At about 1:15 p.m., Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton gave the group of six the first of several warnings from law enforcement: The group could leave, or risk being cited for trespassing and possibly obstruction of justice or resisting arrest, depending on how events would unfold.

One of the six - a man who would not give his name - left, unhooking from his partners. They were connected by carabiners clipped to one another and chained to their wrists, all inside the makeshift pipes.

Dolan said it was too early to gauge the effectiveness of the event, but called it "a bold statement" that raised the profile of the issues.

After 2 p.m., officers with a civil disobedience team made clear to the group their options, and offered them the opportunity to leave without charges. The five stayed, and at around 2:30 officers began removing the pipes. They braced the pipes, one by one, on a small wooden frame and lashed them down with rubber ties. They used small blades at first, then clipped through chicken wire and went after the PVC with a small electric cutter, prying up pieces and reaching in to unhook the carabiners.

They also held blankets to protect the protesters' faces from the work and gave them water. The protesters also brought their own water and had bags of food at the ready, and a Capitol staffer brought in a fan to cool the group and the officers.

Arrested and cited for obstruction of justice - because of the pipe mechanism that police said hindered enforcement - and trespassing were Dolan; Johannes Pedersen, 22, of Eugene, Ore.; Erica Gwen Dossa, 24, of Missoula; Shelby Elizabeth Cunliffe, 25, of Missoula; and Sarah Ellen Stock, 25, of Missoula.

The five pleaded not guilty later at Municipal Court and were released without bail, with conditions, among others, that they remain law-abiding and stay away from the Capitol.

Reporter Sanjay Talwani can be reached at 447-4086 or sanjay.talwani@helenair.com.

 

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